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Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon review – five women writers who changed the world

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The exceptional subjects of this study, all ‘outsiders’, could never fit comfortably inside the frame of what was acceptably female

Lyndall Gordon writes with passionate intelligence about the literature she loves. Since she first published her book on TS Eliot in 1977, she has developed her distinctive way of weaving together the writer’s life and writing, in studies of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily Dickinson and others. Her books are speculative literary biographies; she is fascinated by the otherness and particularity of each of her subjects, but she’s always also pressing on their lives and their works to answer urgent questions of her own, reading their thought as urgently contemporary. Her Divided Lives, a moving memoir of her own childhood in South Africa and relationship with her beloved mother – who was intelligent and spiritual, struggling all her life with illness – feels like a source book for the preoccupations underpinning Gordon’s writing on literature. When her mother called her Lyndall, after the doubting, questing, imaginative heroine of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, she endowed her with more than just a pretty name.

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